Using bar codes and alphanumeric codes to serialize items

Daphne Allen

December 14, 2015

4 Min Read
Using bar codes and alphanumeric codes to serialize items

You can serialize every package your line generates—cost-effectively



Serialized codes created by CounterFight can be verified by cell phone.

Giving each item a unique identifier seems like a lot of work and money. Some brand-protection experts recommend issuing random numbers in a way that still makes sense for tracking and tracing. So how do you outfit each package—or perhaps each unit dose—with its own serial number that counterfeiters can’t use to generate fakes?

Some companies are working with third-party providers that issue such numbers and maintain the ever-growing databases that house them. Others are tying packaging-line–level encoders into enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. Such serial codes could then be conveyed through electronic product codes using radio-frequency identification (RFID) or 2-D bar codes, or alphanumeric codes.

Alternative approaches are also emerging. Griffin-Rutgers Inc. (Ronkonkoma, NY), a provider of in-line printers and coders, has been working with CounterFight, a division of Claricom Ltd. (England). The Counter-Fight system is designed to connect to existing production-line digital coders. The controller creates real-time unique serialized codes in text only, or text and bar code form.

James Butcher, director, Claricom, reports that the system doesn’t need an Internet connection at the beginning or end of a production batch. “We think that plant managers would rightly be concerned if their production could be hindered by an Internet connection,” he says. “Our CPC generates 12-digit serialized codes, using proven encryption algorithms. It then controls the printers to print them on the packs. The CPC does not store codes. It retains and ultimately transmits—when an Internet connection is available—a small packet of data pertaining to the production batch. The data are transmitted to a secure database hosted either by CounterFight or the user. From this tiny database record, all serialized codes can be verified within one second, either via a Web interface or via a mobile phone.”

Nosco (Gurnee, IL), a printer of drug packaging components and an integrator of RFID solutions, is also looking at efficient ways to serialize products. In collaboration with Hewlett-Packard (HP), Nosco is introducing item-level serialization products and integration services. Nosco and HP are developing serialization capabilities for HP’s Indigo digital label production system for shorter-run labels (generally between 1000 and 200,000 labels per production run), conventional long-run labels, folding cartons, and other printed packaging.

Nosco can serialize individual item-level labels and write codes to case-level UHF RFID tags to create parent-to-child relationships. Through the HP Managed Registry, brand owners can track and trace items to develop electronic pedigrees.

According to Craig Curran, Nosco’s RFID business manager, there are three primary options for pharmaceutical manufacturers working to meet wholesaler expectations for electronic pedigree solutions by July 2008: Two-dimensional bar codes at both the item and case levels; two-dimensional bar codes at the item level and UHF RFID at the case level; and near-field UHF RFID or HF RFID at the item level and UHF RFID at the case level.

Random, alphanumeric codes can serialize products in ways that keep counterfeiters guessing.

“Pharmaceutical customers will likely choose a 2-D bar coding option to prepare for the California ePedigree Law, evolving into a full RFID solution with 2-D bar codes for redundancy and further product authentication tools,” he says. Nosco and HP are already in pharmaceutical pilots as the industry prepares for electronic pedigree deadlines. (Nosco remains active with its RFID programs through its RFID Package Integration Initiative.)

“A common method for serialization will likely be the 24-character ­Electronic Product Code (EPC),” adds Curran. “The schema for this code has been established by EPCglobal and its membership. This method provides a standard means for serialization that all pharmaceutical companies can uniformly adopt. Nosco can write this EPC to either an RFID tag or a 2-D variable Data Matrix code.”

Cost-efficient approaches to product security have been on the pharmaceutical industry’s wish list for some time. Many companies seek a solution that can be seamlessly and cost-effectively implemented with little risk.

Jim Umbdenstock, president of Griffin-Rutgers, appreciates CounterFight’s low-cost alternative to RFID, and even bar coding. “There is a need for a multitude of layers of protection—overt, covert, forensic,” he says. “Trouble is, they are all expensive.” With CounterFight, however, firms can use existing digital coders, eliminating the need for capital investment in new equipment. And, Umbdenstock points out, users just pay for the codes they print, so the cost per code per package is measured in fractions of a cent.

Having labels and cartons serialized by your printer—or making it easier to add those serial numbers yourself—appears to make brand protection a more affordable reality.

About the Author(s)

Daphne Allen

Daphne Allen is editor-in-chief of Design News. She previously served as editor-in-chief of MD+DI and of Pharmaceutical & Medical Packaging News and also served as an editor for Packaging Digest. Daphne has covered design, manufacturing, materials, packaging, labeling, and regulatory issues for more than 20 years. She has also presented on these topics in several webinars and conferences, most recently discussing design and engineering trends at IME West 2024 and leading an Industry ShopTalk discussion during the show on artificial intelligence.

Follow Daphne on X at @daphneallen and reach her at [email protected].

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